Keeping Comics in the Curriculum

CBLDF_BBW_posterOnce upon a time, students smuggled their favorite comic books into class to distract themselves from their lessons. But today, those students have grown up and taken on teaching positions of their own, and fans of comic books, graphic novels, and art and literature in general have realized that comic books can be used not only for entertainment, but for education.

When asked about the role of comic books in the classroom, author and educator (and CBLDF contributor!) Meryl Jaffe told School Library Jounral‘s Brigid Alverson that comic books can be used “[e]very which way! …They not only invite and empower students of diverse learning needs, they reinforce multi-modal learning, multi-modal literacy, and brilliantly address many of the Common Core Standards.” When combined with a variety of other materials — including speeches, video clips, and mainstream textbooks or classic literature — graphic novels “teach the art and power of communication, entertainment, and rhetoric, to more broadly empower our students to better understand and conquer the worlds around them.”

Unfortunately, some people don’t see it that way. In recent years, CBLDF has defended against numerous cases of challenged graphic novels in schools, including an abrupt order to remove all copies of Marjane Satrapi’s powerful Persepolis from Chicago Public School classrooms back in March 2013. Facing backlash from both the school community and anti-censorship organizations (including CBLDF), Chicago Public School CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett indicated language and a single page as the cause of the ban, ruling that the “powerful image of torture” on the page in question would require a ban for all seventh graders and special training for teachers of grade 8 – 10 who wanted to teach the graphic novel.

As Jaffe puts it in her interview, “Comics and graphic novels…h ave struggled and gotten bad reps.” As Alverson explained in an early September article in School Library Journal, the unique combination of text and images makes comic books and graphic novels particularly vulnerable to censorship. Though the medium promotes both visual and verbal literacy and requires readers to bring their own thought processes to the table to construct the story between the panels, graphic novels are also susceptible to the “naked buns” effect. Researcher Steven Cary, who coined the phrase, explains it in his book Going Graphic: Comics at Work in the Multilingual Classroom: “It’s the rare student or parent who objects to the words ‘naked buns.’ But an image of naked buns can set off fireworks.”

Yet advocates in both the comics industry and education community maintain that graphic novels do have a place in the classroom. Jaffe explains that the combination of image and text can help struggling readers keep up with the story because the text on a graphic novel page is less daunting and stories are communicated with concise, specific word choices. Further, images engage readers with the goings-on on the page and provide visual context for unfamiliar words.

Even with careful research, planning, and articulation of just why graphic novels are so helpful to today’s students, a parent or concerned citizen can still call for the censorship of a certain book. So, what happens then?

Knowledgable and passionate educators can ensure that every parent is well informed of what comics they plan to use at each grade level and just why they’ve made these selections. Jesse Karp, early childhood and interdivisional librarian at the Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School in New York City, adds, “I make sure there is no title in the collection that I wouldn’t go to the mat for.” Enthusiasm for the course subject and the chosen supplementary materials will have an impact on how both students and their parents or guardians react to the curriculum, and can make the difference between a smooth, successful school year, and one beset by parental concerns and a disconnect between the material and its readers.

If you’re an educator, a parent, or just a curious reader — looking to incorporate graphic novels into your lessons plans and recreational reading, be sure to check out our ongoing feature, Using Graphic Novels in Education and CBLDF Discussion Guides. Each resource provides tips for teaching and talking about graphic novels, including potential areas of concern.

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Katie McGuire is a recent graduate of Emerson College, currently navigating post-grad life in New York.